Matthew Bugg’s acclaimed WW2 musical Miss Nightingale may just have found its spiritual home at The Vaults. Entering the warren of dimly lit underground tunnels, we’re handed a chocolate bar and a programme designed to look like a ration book before stepping into the auditorium, which could very easily be an air raid shelter. As trains rumble in and out of Waterloo Station above our heads, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine what we’re actually hearing is bombs falling, and it’s almost a surprise to emerge into Launcelot Street and find all the buildings intact and ourselves back in the 21st century.
Miss Nightingale does many things all at once. It’s a touching story of forbidden love, a social commentary on gay and women’s rights, and a feel-good (and really quite naughty) musical. By rights it probably should feel like a bit of a jumble, and it’s true that some elements of the plot end up a little sketchy through sheer lack of time – yet it’s impossible not to get swept up in the charm and sheer joy of it all.
It’s 1942, and war hero Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) hires Maggie Brown (Tamar Broadbent), a feisty nurse from oop north, to perform in his new club. The two quickly grow close, but Maggie’s already in a relationship with dodgy wheeler-dealer Tom (Niall Kerrigan) – and besides, it’s her friend and songwriter George (Conor O’Kane), a Polish Jew still in mourning for both his lost family and his beloved Berlin, who’s secretly captured Frank’s heart.
Forced by the law and social expectations to keep their illicit love affair under wraps, the two men end up embroiling both themselves and Maggie in a complex tangle of broken hearts and false hopes – all the while maintaining a facade of determined jollity in order to keep up morale. This is Britain, after all, and the show must go on, whatever dramas may be unfolding behind the scenes.
And there’s no doubt Miss Nightingale‘s outrageous comedy numbers know how to lift the spirits. Laden with every innuendo you can think of – and a few that you might not – they provide welcome light relief from the intensity of Frank and George’s tempestuous love affair, and particularly from the disturbing realisation that less than 100 years ago, gay couples still risked social ruin or even prison just for the chance to be together. (And worse – there’s a moment in Act 2 when George reflects on the unfairness of being persecuted in the country he came to seeking refuge; as recent events have shown all too clearly, these words could just as easily be spoken today.)
The whole cast of actor-musicians are clearly in their element during the rude bits (and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t get a bit of a buzz out of a song whose main lyric is, “You’ve got to get your sausage where you can”?) but Matthew Bugg’s score demands a softer side too, particularly from the show’s three main stars, all of whom impress with their powerful vocals. Though best known as a comedian, Tamar Broadbent reveals she can do serious just as successfully, while Nicholas Coutu-Langmead and Conor O’Kane maintain an ideal balance in their blossoming on-stage relationship, with Frank’s timidity and stiff upper lip perfectly countered by George’s volatility and flamboyance.
This is the fifth production of Miss Nightingale, and it’s not hard to see why the show keeps returning – it really is the best of British, in more ways than one. Yes, it’s a huge amount of fun, but there’s a more serious point to all this. We might not be at war any more, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still battles to be fought – and in an increasingly troubled world, this show reminds us that it’s as important as ever to stand up and be counted.
Miss Nightingale is at The Vaults until 20th May.